How to Use Conflict to Give Your Novel a Sense of Direction

23 Aug
Idea Novey's debut novel, Ways to Disappear, has been called a "tour de force" and "seared to perfection" by reviewers.

Idea Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, about the search for a vanished Brazilian writer has been called a “tour de force” and “seared to perfection” by reviewers.

Anyone with small kids is familiar with this situation: they argue over (take your pick). One says, “I want it.” The other says, “No, I do.” Or one says, “Let’s do ___,” and the other says, “No, let’s do ___.” As a parent, you can step in, which you often do. But sometimes you don’t. You think, “Let them figure it out.” You tell your partner, “They’ll either figure it out or they won’t.” Then, you listen to the fight continue and wait to see which way it will go. If the argument’s loud enough, you can feel your muscles tense as you wait for it to resolve itself—or not.

This is misery as a parent but a great strategy for fiction writers, and Idra Novey uses it to great effect in her novel Ways to Disappear. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a famous Brazilian novelist who vanishes and her American translator who sets out to find her. Early in the novel, we’re introduced to the translator’s conflicted relationship with her boyfriend:

Miles told her she spent too much time fretting over unanswered emails. His preferred subject of late was when they might get married, and whether they had to invite everyone in their Road Runners group. He said he was leaning toward an outside venue regardless.

Emma, on the other hand, was leaning toward never.

She had yet to express this.

In this passage, the conflict is as clear as when kids fight over a toy: he wants to get married and she doesn’t. Either they’ll figure it out (and get married), or they won’t. Not only is the conflict laid out clearly, but so are the possible resolutions. That’s step one: a map that shows the plot’s endpoint.

Novey doesn’t stop there. The passage continues with “She had yet to express this,” which introduces a stop along the way to the end of the plot. This is as important as the conflict itself; a novel needs stages, steps, obstacles (choose your preferred word). It needs stuff to fill out the pages between the beginning and the end, and that’s what Novey has done so concisely in these three short paragraphs: clearly laid out the beginning and end and one part of the middle.

As you read the entire novel, you’ll quickly see that it’s formally inventive, with pages devoted entirely to a single dictionary definition or a single email or a radio dispatch. At one point, a chapter is written in verse. It’s also a heady novel about translation and, as a critic in The New Yorker wrote, “the nature of personal agency in life and fiction.” And it’s a comic novel with real villains and dramatic twists and turns. In short, it’s a novel with a lot going on, and part of the reason that Novey is able to stuff so much into the pages is because of how clearly she lays out the conflict at the beginning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up conflict and possible resolution, using Ways to Disappear as a model:

  1. Find a single issue on which two characters disagree. Novey uses marriage. One of her characters wants it, and the other doesn’t. Of course, the issue can be absolutely anything. Whatever you choose, try to state it as clearly as I was able to state the issue in Ways to Disappear: The issue is ___. One character wants ____, and the other character doesn’t or wants ___. You’re also laying out two possible resolutions. It’s a blunt, direct statement, and this may feel odd. As writers, it’s tempting to latch onto subtlety, to want the reader to figure things out. But it’s important to know which things ought to be subtle and which should be direct. Ways to Disappear contains all sorts of smart, subtle lines about translation and agency. But it lays out the plot clearly.
  2. Flesh out each of their stances. Novey does this with Miles in particular, describing his plans and anxieties about the wedding. She doesn’t just say, “Miles wanted to get married.” She shows him wanting it and assuming that it will happen. She does something different with Emma. Rather than showing us her thoughts, we’re shown her voice: leaning toward never. It’s a line that Emma might have said while confiding to a close friend over coffee. The line is understated, not bombastic or intense or meek or whatever. So, try both strategies. Show us one character working on the assumption that his or her stance will win out. For the other character, try writing a line that sounds as if it has been spoken to a confidant. You can even write it as such: She told her friend…
  3. Create an unknown. Novey does this by revealing that Emma hasn’t yet told Miles that she doesn’t want to get married. The unknown, then, has two parts: Miles doesn’t know something, and the reader doesn’t know when he’ll find out. That’s a great way to approach plot: one character knows more than the other, and the plot is built, at least in part, around when the other character finds out or catches up. So, what information might one of your characters keep in reserve? It might be his or her stance on the issue. Or, it could be a plan that is related to that stance. It could be an emotion or memory. In essence, it’s a secret. 

The goal is to chart out a general direction and plot point for your story or novel by introducing a point of conflict, two possible resolutions, and a piece of information that one character knows but the other doesn’t.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Use Conflict to Give Your Novel a Sense of Direction”

  1. myrahmcilvain August 23, 2016 at 8:02 p08 #

    I am a faithful reader because you are a super teacher. Thank you.

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